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President Trump Bows to Pressure, Reverses Family Separation Policy; Trump Rips "Nasty Guy" Sanford A Week After Killer Tweet; Interview with South Carolina Congressman Mark Sanford. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired June 20, 2018 - 16:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Why didn't he do this 2,000 kids ago?

THE LEAD starts right now.

Under intense political pressure brought on by the outrage over images and sounds of kids in cages calling out for their parents, President Trump finally signs an order which he says will stop his family separation practice at the border. But it didn't really sound like he wanted to.

As Republicans are warned that President Trump's immigration crisis could sink them, brand-new CNN polls we're releasing right now on THE LEAD are giving us the newest snapshot of the intense battle coming for Congress control.

Plus, what now? How the president's action to keep families together could trigger a whole new crisis at the border. What would that be?

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

TAPPER: Good afternoon. Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin today with breaking news in our politics lead.

Under assault from all sides over a policy that separated children from their parents at the border, President Trump did something today that we have never before seen him do as president. He surrendered, taking a step that for weeks he has falsely insisted was not possible.

He stopped the practice of child separation himself, he says. The president claimed he was not backing down, but he did just sign an executive order that he said would -- quote -- "keep families together while ensuring we have a powerful border."

The president acknowledging there was pressure from both his wife and his daughter Ivanka to end the separation policy that his own administration policy instituted.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: No, Ivanka feels very strongly. My wife feels very strongly about it. I feel very strongly about it.

I think anybody with a heart would feel very strongly about it. We don't like to see families separated. At the same time, we don't want people coming into our country illegally.


TAPPER: President Trump also faced pleas from Republicans on Capitol Hill to stop the new practice at the border, which could prove calamitous, they fear, to them at the polls in November.

We're getting a new look, meanwhile, at the headwinds that congressional Republicans already are facing. On the generic ballot, in our brand-new CNN poll, Democrats are gaining even more of an advantage.

Our polling shows a Democrat beating a Republican by eight points on the generic ballot. That's a five-point boost for Democrats since last month. That eight-point advantage, experts say, could, could be enough to flip the House to Democratic control in November, especially when combined with the significant enthusiasm gap.

Our new poll showing that 55 percent of Democrats say they're enthusiastic about voting in November. That compares with 40 percent of Republicans, a 15-point gap. Bad news for Republicans, who obviously need to do a better job of getting their voters excited and heading to the polls.

This hour, President Trump is trying to do just that. He's aboard Air Force One hitting the campaign trail, ramping up his political schedule at the exact same time the Republicans are on the defensive over the child separation practice, which the president says he just ended, a rare retreat by a president who prides himself on never apologizing.

The pressure on the administration against the policy hit something of a fever pitch yesterday, with Senate Republicans announcing that they unanimously opposed it. In addition, the president's homeland security secretary was accosted and shouted down by Democratic socialists as she tried to eat at a Mexican restaurant last night.

The sounds of crying children were blared on speakers played by a Democratic super PAC as big donors hit a Trump Hotel fund-raiser. And then, of course, his former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, was lambasted for responding rather callously to news of a little girl with Down syndrome who had been separated from her mother at the border.

CNN's Kaitlan Collins joins me now live at the White House.

Kaitlan, do we know exactly what got President Trump to completely flip and decide he wants to sign this order?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, that's the question I asked President Trump in the Oval Office that he chose not to answer. What we are witnessing is something we rarely, if ever, have seen from

President Trump, and that is Trump backing down.

Now, as he sat there at the Resolute Desk signing this executive order on ending the separation of families at the border, he stood next to the Department of Homeland Security secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, who said just three days ago that this was a policy that didn't exist.


COLLINS (voice-over): President Trump abruptly reversing course today, signing an executive order to end the separation of families on the border.

TRUMP: So we're going to have strong, very strong borders, but we're going to keep the families together. I didn't like the sight or the feeling of families being separated.

COLLINS: A striking about-face from a president who has refused to back down, insisting only yesterday that he had just two choices.

TRUMP: Those are the only two options, totally open borders or criminal prosecution, for law-breaking.

COLLINS: Contradicting himself.

TRUMP: Wait, wait. You can't do it through an executive order.

COLLINS: And aides who have maintained their hands were tied.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, I think, at the end, Congress has the power to fix this.


KIRSTJEN NIELSEN, U.S. SECRETARY OF HOMELAND SECURITY: Congress and the courts created this problem, and Congress alone can fix it.

COLLINS: Trump now hoping to defuse a crisis of his own making on the southern border with the stroke of his pen. But an executive order isn't required to end the separations.

Sources telling CNN, the president wanted to look decisive, telling aides it would look badly if he reversed the policy quietly.

TRUMP: The dilemma is that, if you're weak, if you're weak, which some people would like you to be, if you're really, really pathetically weak, the country is going to be overrun with millions of people. And if you're strong, then you don't have any heart.

COLLINS: Tensions reached a boiling point in recent days, as images of children separated from their parents and kept in cages continued to surface.

The secretary of homeland security, Kirstjen Nielsen, confronted by protesters while dining at a Mexican restaurant in Washington. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: If kids don't eat in peace, you don't eat in


COLLINS: Trump telling aides he knew the images looked bad politically, but insisting the media was only showing the worst ones.

TRUMP: Those images affect everybody, but I have to say that you have double standards.

COLLINS: But the administration could be back to square one in a matter of days. Sources say the executive order won't end the zero tolerance policy that led to the separations in the first place, and an order could create an entire slew of legal problems.

TRUMP: We're going to keep families together, but we still have to maintain toughness or our country will be overrun by people, by crime, by all of the things that we don't stand for, that we don't want.


COLLINS: Now, the text of this executive order that the president signed does instruct families to be kept together when possible.

But during that signing in the Oval Office shortly before the president left the White House, he did say that this could be open to legal issues with this executive order, and still referenced legislation, which shows, Jake, that though the president is reversing course here, we still could be a ways away from the end of all of this.

TAPPER: All right, Kaitlan Collins at the White House for us, thank you so much.

My political panel joins me now.

We're going to dive into immigration throughout the whole show.

I do want to start with this new CNN polling. Let's put the numbers back up, showing that Democrats win in a generic ballot 50 percent to 42 percent. That's an 8 percent gap that is a five-point bounce from last month.

Josh Holmes, you're a professional Republican. You want Republicans to win the House and Senate and keep them. How worried do these numbers make you?

JOSH HOLMES, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Well, it's bounced around a little bit, but I think this is pretty consistent with what we have seen.

I think the average at this point is about 6.7, 7 percent. In a midterm where one party controls every lever of Congress, it's not abnormal to have this. The intensity is another piece of this that is pretty consistent.

I think that the -- where Republicans can take heart, at least on the Senate side, is the makeup of the electorate in some of these states that they're targeting. A general -- what we're looking at here, national numbers, reflects an awful lot of people who are in states that frankly don't vote in Senate elections in 2018.

So, you know, North Dakota, Missouri, Indiana, West Virginia, places like that, they're going to be an awful lot more Republicans and they have very different motivations than the general electorate as a whole.

TAPPER: Fair enough.

Let's talk about the enthusiasm gap, a 15-point enthusiasm gap, Democrats 55 percent enthusiastic vote, Republicans 40 percent. What's driving that lack of enthusiasm? Is it President Trump? Is it congressional Republicans? What do you think?

AMANDA CARPENTER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, here's what really worries me.

The policies that the administration is pushing are controversial. And it would be one thing if you were making progress on the immigration agenda because of what you're doing. But what they are doing right now is actively encouraging the Democratic base to get out the vote, while depressing the Republican base, because you aren't actually getting anything done.

Look at what happened this week. Today, President Trump is writing an executive order to overturn his administration's own deterrence policy.

TAPPER: Right.

CARPENTER: They have bungled this so badly, all it does is energize Democrats and depress Republicans.

TAPPER: Symone, let me ask you. I have to be honest, I'm a little surprised, given all the controversies of this president, that the gap isn't bigger for Democrats.

In 2006, it was something like a 15-point gap. And that ended up being a wave that brought the Democrats the House and there was all of a sudden Speaker Nancy Pelosi. This is eight points. We're still a few months out. I'm not saying it's over. But are you surprised that it's not bigger, that gap?

SYMONE SANDERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I'm not surprised it's not bigger.

Look, when Donald Trump got elected, there were way more -- there were lots of nefarious things going on, things that he had said, troubling, problematic things from folks in his camp, which is now his administration.

So, I'm not surprised that the gap is so small. I will say, and I told this to "The Washington Post" a couple weeks ago, that I do not think the bulk of this enthusiasm is merely an anti-Trump enthusiasm, because, again, Democrats already didn't like Trump. If you don't like Trump, what he's done hasn't made you like him anymore.


I think what a lot of this is folks seeing what is possible. If Donald Trump can be elected, damn it, so can I. And so that's why I think we have seen a record number of women put their name on the ballot to run for office as Democrats.

They are every -- every single seat. And all the competitive states have a Democrat on the ballot challenging a Republican. That is unprecedented, Jake.

TAPPER: So let's talk about one of the headwinds that Republicans are facing, which is this child separation issue, even though President Trump obviously trying to quell it today with this new executive order.

Ivanka Trump today tweeted: "Thank you, POTUS," president of the United States, "for taking critical action, ending family separation at our border. Congress must now act, find lasting solutions consistent with our shared values, the same values so many countries are seeking as they endeavor to create a better life for their families."

Thank you, POTUS?

CARPENTER: I don't care one bit about what she has to say on this issue. You know why?

Because instead of actually doing some work, she went and asked daddy about the pictures. If she were a real White House policy adviser, she wouldn't ask daddy. She would go down to the border and look for herself, as would the secretary of homeland security, as would Stephen Miller, because you can tell, when these people talk, they have not seen this with their own eyes.

They have no idea what's happening down there. And so I don't want to hear about pictures. Get back to me once you go down and see it.

TAPPER: And yet Ivanka Trump does wield power and the president said that she and Melania Trump are some of the -- two of the main reasons, it sounds like -- he wasn't quoting congressional Republicans -- that he decided to sign this executive order.

HOLMES: Yes, I mean, he clearly listens to what she has to say. And in this regard, I think it's a positive thing for the Republican Party and a positive thing for the country.

I share your concern. I think any parent that looks at the situation like we saw on the border would be deeply concerned. And I think Ivanka has expressed the concern that most people do feel.

Now, whether or not that she was the only person expressing that or not, I'm certainly glad she did, because we're now in a place where we can put this terrible episode behind us. TAPPER: And yet it seems like she's trying to cast her dad as the

hero of the situation. "Thank you, POTUS, for taking this critical action, ending separation at our border."

This was a practice that was in full thrust because of President --


SANDERS: -- administration.


SANDERS: I think they think we're stupid.

I have said this more times than I would like, but they continuously think that we're stupid.

I don't know what Ivanka Trump thinks she's doing wading in with the tweet. Look, she is a White House policy adviser. So the fact that she had to wait until she saw the photos, run in and say, well, dad -- we don't know what she said.

But I envision Ivanka talking about, "Well, daddy, can you just do something about the policy?"

You are a White House adviser. Ivanka Trump in that position wields a lot of power. But what happens when your power comes merely from proximity and not because you're qualified has you going and doing things like Ivanka Trump has done today.


SANDERS: So, you know, I just -- the Trump administration did create this policy. The executive order is not going to do anything to, in my opinion -- to get to the root of the issue.

There is still a zero tolerance policy, and that's what we need to have turned over.

CARPENTER: There's one point in this, and maybe it's a silver lining. It wasn't until the pictures and the videos came out that anybody cared, that these people were supposedly moved.

I actually don't buy the idea that Melania and Ivanka convinced Trump. I think he read the media coverage.



CARPENTER: And maybe the bright side is that Republicans, when they stand up, as they have, and said, we're not doing this, the governors saying we're sending troops, the National Guard, to help you do this, and we all look at the pictures and we're all horrified, that can move the president to do the right thing eventually.

Maybe that's what we can take away from this. I'm not listening --


TAPPER: Stick around. We're going to keep talking about immigration and this debate.

Stay right here.

President Trump just went after Republican Congressman Mark Sanford again, saying he has -- quote -- "never been a fan of his."

Congressman Mark Sanford will join me to respond to the president's attacks.

Stay with us.


[16:16:13] JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: In politics, moments ago, President Trump tweeted again about South Carolina Congressman Mark Sanford saying, quote, had a great meeting with the House GOP last night at the Capitol. They applauded and laughed loudly when I mentioned my experience with Mark Sanford. I have never been a fan of his, unquote.

This doesn't match at all what others in the room told us, that, in fact, Republicans moaned and groaned and some media accounts said he even was booed. The president seemed to mock Sanford's loss in front of his congressional colleagues, his fellow Republicans.

And it was another tweet from Trump hours before the critical primary that Sanford faced that may have sealed Sanford's loss.

I spoke to Sanford just a few minutes ago.


TAPPER: Joining me now is Congressman Mark Sanford, Republican of South Carolina.

Congressman, good to see you again. Thanks for joining us.


TAPPER: So, yesterday, President Trump mocked you, mocked your loss in front of your peers. He called you a, quote, nasty guy. How do you respond to that?

SANFORD: You don't. You know, I don't quite understand where the president comes from on any number of different things these days. And so, you don't.

But I do think it's humbling, one, that in this case the president is booed by colleagues in the House who basically said we don't go along with what the president is suggesting. And two, I think that there is a bigger message for all of us to take away from what occurred, because well beyond the president's comments, well beyond the election of the first district, and that is the importance and the value of dissent in our political system.

And in this case, I largely supported the president and his agenda. But because I had spoken up on a number of things that were at odds with stands I had long taken or at odds with people I represented, I was singled out. And I think part of what the president did yesterday was to send a very chilling message to my colleagues on, hey, if you speak up against me, there will be consequences. And I think that's the last thing we need in our political system.

TAPPER: Have you heard from any of your former colleagues who were at the event yesterday?

SANFORD: I've been overwhelmed by the number of colleagues who have come up and said awfully kind things.

TAPPER: Our new CNN poll shows a generic Democrat winning over a Republican by eight points. Why do you think the Republicans are behind? Is that a referendum on President Trump, do you think?

SANFORD: Again, you know, I'm not an expert on what's happening in terms of national polls and what might come next in the presidency. I just know what I know. And that is I went to an awfully interesting election cycle that was unlike any other that I've experienced in my entire time in politics wherein the referendum became not where did I stand on policies that were important to people's lives in the first district of South Carolina, but rather, was I for, quote, or against the president.

And when I answered with sort of a nuanced answer, which was overwhelmingly I supported him but on these handful of issues, I've differed, that became the focal point in the election and should tell all of us a lot about this, again, inflexion point that we're at as a civilization. Is it about ideas and representing our district? Or is it simply about blind allegiance to whoever it is that might be at the top?

TAPPER: Do you think the Republican Party right now is about blind allegiance to President Trump?

SANFORD: I don't think that there's enough pushback, and I'm not alone in saying that. I mean, I think there are any number of different folks, whether in media world or in policy world, in business world, who have said there needs to be more vigorous dissent, because that's how ideas get vetted.

I mean, the Founding Fathers were so genius in their design in creating a legislative and executive and judicial branches, each of which were a check upon the other. If they wanted just efficiency, they would have gotten a king. But they didn't want that. They wanted dissent.

[16:20:00] And so, you know, the question and your answer I guess has already been answered by a whole lot of different folks saying there ought to be something different than what see these days. TAPPER: There was some pushback, it seemed, to these images of these

undocumented immigrant children having been separated from their parents. President Trump saying he just signed an executive order on this issue to stop the separations.

How do you think of how the president has handled this policy?

SANFORD: Well, you know, it spun up into the firestorm that it's been, and it puts two I think great American values at odds with each other. One is the principle of law and what does the law mean in our country, what's it mean if you break the law. But the other has been the importance of family as the absolute cornerstone, building block, of our civilization. And so, we had I think a firestone that legitimately arose based on the way in which this policy that had been enacted by the president seemed to put those two things at odds.

TAPPER: Congressman, have you been disappointed by your colleagues? I know that there are a lot of people in that building who believe in conservative principles, who believe in the separation of powers, who believe in free trade, and I have been just as somebody who has covered this town now for more than a generation surprised at how quiet a lot of people have been about certain issues that I thought they cared a great deal about.

SANFORD: I would agree with that. I mean, I think that that's the quandary for all of us. There are a lot of great people in this institution, Republican and Democrat, House and Senate. Spectacular people.

But I think that if you look at the way group dynamics work, if you have a forceful personality, which Trump certainly fits that bill, it becomes sometimes a bit differently, particularly if your job is on the line, to speak up against. And yet, there's never been a more important time to do so as it relates, for instance, to spending.

So I think that we do need to speak up, but, again, that's the take- away from this election I just went through, which is, is there a substantial electoral consequence to speaking up and speaking your mind in this particular age that we find ourselves in.

TAPPER: And obviously, you think there is. Do you have any regrets?

SANFORD: None. I mean, you know, I have my four sons with me and you know those boys. You met them over the campaign trail a number of years that our lives have crossed each other. But they're grown men now and they stood with me.

And to a boy, each one of them came up afterwards and said, dad, you made the right call. We're proud of you.

And I think that that's the test for every one of us in politics, which is there's always some gray zone out there, and nobody gets it perfect. But to stand on the ideas that you believe in, regardless of the consequence, I think becomes particularly important in this time when you've got a dominating personality in the executive branch as we do right now. TAPPER: Republican Congressman Mark Sanford of South Carolina, thanks

so much for your time, sir.

SANFORD: Yes, sir.


TAPPER: So, President Trump signing this executive order. What was the tipping point for him? Was it the head of DHS being shouted down at a Mexican restaurant? Was it his former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, seeming to make fun of a child with Down syndrome?

Stay with us.


CROWD: Shame, shame, shame, shame!



[16:27:54] TAPPER: Welcome back. You're looking right now at a group of young undocumented immigrant girls. They were brought to a New York City facility early Tuesday morning after being separated from their families, according to a federal source briefed on the matter.

A 9-month-old is one of 239 children being housed at the New York City shelter, the result of the family separation practice that President Trump says he just reversed. That's according to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. He said that some of the children at the center are too young to communicate and many needs significant mental health services.

Mayor de Blasio demanded more information on the separated children from the Trump administration.


MAYOR BILL DE BLASIO (D), NEW YORK: Come clean with the truth. Who are these children? How many are they? Where are they? What is happening here? How is it possible that none of us knew there were 239 kids right here in our own city?


TAPPER: I'm back with the panel. And as much as I'm sure President Trump wants this issue to go away with the signing of the executive order, there's still 2,300 kids out there that have yet to be put back with their parents. We've heard stories about some parents being deported and their kids are still here in the United States. This mess isn't going away any time soon.

AMANDA CARPENTER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, and there's a much larger group of children who came here without any parents, unaccompanied, that get shoved through the system, dropped off in cities in homes of finding relatives, and nobody knows where they are. I mean, we can talk about ending the immediate separation crisis, but these people have to be found.

I mean, it's not even clear if we know their names, where they came from or where they're going. They are literally lost in the system.

TAPPER: How much do you think, if at all, this will have any impact on the midterm elections and on President Trump's popularity and unpopularity?

JOSH HOLMES, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Ordinarily, you would think a lot, right? I mean, this is a truly memorable moment that I think is seared in a lot of people's minds. Problem is, there has been such a hurricane of outrages on both sides that we've experienced over the last year-and-a-half. And none of it has had a particular resonance that lasts any longer than a week to ten days. We'll see.

I think there are a couple things here that may stick. One, just the images of the children itself, the unforced errors, and in particular, the inability to get your story straight on the back-end about who is in charge of what and how these things getting put together. I think that more than anything, even the policy itself, sort of tells middle of the voters these guys don't know what they're doing.